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Student fashion consultants help students dress for professional success.

Well-dressed for career success

Two CMU students are using their talent for fashion to prepare their peers for interviews

Contact: Ari Harris

​If you ever get dressed in the morning feeling like an episode of "What Not to Wear," wouldn't it be great to have your own personal stylist making sure you look your best?

Job-seeking students at Central Michigan University have that option, thanks to the student associates at First Impressions. Located on the first floor of the Bovee University Center, the shop offers CMU students one-on-one fashion consulting and free professional attire for interviews, job fairs and other professional events.

Classroom to dressing room

CMU fashion merchandising and design seniors Holly Conner and Alicia Johnson have worked at First Impressions for several years.

Johnson came to CMU intending to become a teacher. When she learned about First Impressions during orientation, she saw an opportunity to pursue a different path. She began working in the store as a volunteer associate her freshman year and soon switched her major to fashion.

"Pursuing a degree in fashion pushes your creativity to its limits in the best possible way. I love being able to dream up some of my craziest ideas and then figure out how to make them a reality," she said.


Alicia Johnson, left, and Holly Conner serve as managers in the First Impressions store.

For Conner, working in the store seemed like a good way to get more involved in her major.

"The best part of being a fashion major is that you genuinely see the results of your work. Fashion majors create garments, sketches, designs, visual merchandising plans and computer drawings that are interesting to look at and can actually be used outside of the classroom," she said.

"If I could find a job in which I could create fashion illustrations, sew them into garments and then complete photoshoots of said garments, I would be in heaven."

Conner joined the First Impressions team as a sophomore, working as an associate. She now co-manages the store with Johnson, under the guidance of Career Services staff.

Walking, talking examples

Conner said students who come into First Impressions for help become a walking portfolio for the fashion students who assist them.

She said store associates can help students who may not understand concepts like the difference between blazers and suit jackets, appropriate skirt lengths, or how to knot neckties.

"It is crucial for students to have professional attire for interviews, because before they even speak, the interviewer will instantaneously create a judgment about them based on nonverbal cues like their clothing, grooming and posture," Conner said.

A real-world operation

First Impressions consultations are by appointment only, and student shoppers get one-on-one help to build a custom look. Johnson said her classes have prepared her to give students their best look.

"We're always watching out for trends. I can tell from a glance what size a student is going to need and how certain garments are going to fit them. I know what colors are going to work best for them," she said.

Johnson and Conner manage most of the business functions, from inventory management to associate training and scheduling to processing request forms and customer assistance.

"I was taking a class in retail management, and most of the terms and concepts were already familiar to me. I had already seen how those things happen in our store," said Conner.

Johnson hopes to merge her passion for creative fashion with leadership skills she has honed at First Impressions.

"My ideal job would be working as a merchandiser for a large company. I want to create layouts for stores around the country and lead a team of people to merchandise a flagship store."


Limited inventory, creative solutions

Every item in the shop is donated, often by CMU faculty and staff, and the store doesn't always have a steady supply of every size.

"Small sizes for men and women are especially hard to come by," said Johnson. "We often run out of the basics, like black pants and white shirts, in smaller sizes."

The solution is creativity, said Conner.

"We push individuality. Maybe instead of a white shirt, we suggest a pattern. Maybe we offer a skirt instead of pants. We can help anyone personalize their look."

Johnson said students are often surprised by just how much the store has to offer: "We have something for nearly every shape and size."

Different kind of deadline

The shop sees its highest volume of appointment requests in the week before a big career fair, she said.

Johnson and Conner set a goal to serve 600 students in this academic year — more than the store has ever outfitted before. Since the store has limited hours, they needed a new way to serve more customers.

The students organized a one-day open house March 22 in the Bovee UC Rotunda at which nearly 100 students came in for consultation. By the end of the day, they had served their 605th customer of the year.


First Impressions store associates outfitted nearly 100 students at the open house event.

The year isn't over yet, and Conner said that as graduation approaches, many students will start thinking about job interviews and their first day of work.

"We'll be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get the store restocked and ready to serve," she said.

Conner said she loves knowing she's helping someone take an important career step.

Johnson agrees.

"I love seeing people's reactions to the clothing when they find a great outfit. You notice they're standing up taller and have a big smile because they know they look great," said Johnson. She said many students come back and tell them their success stories.

"I love to hear from the students who got jobs in the clothing they received from us."

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